ONE cannot watch Pakistan’s present predicament without tears, despondency, and a suicide note in one’s pocket.
Soon, in another two months, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government will be completing its first year in power. There will be a predictable cacophony of praise lauding its achievements, its successes, its commitment to the causes of the people. Few will dare recall the electoral promises (still unfulfilled) made with such passion. Few will question the dyslexic manner in which various arms of the government function, often at odds with each other. Few will realise that gradually the iron grid that sustains every government from within — the Civil Service and the Rules of Business — is now irreversibly rusted.
Previous governments — especially the PPP and the PML-N under any brother — paid scant attention to the discipline imposed by the Rules of Business. Mr Asif Ali Zardari is known to have used Post-it notes to convey his orders. As soon as they were carried out, the notes were destroyed, leaving no record on the file. The Sharif brothers preferred the mediaeval approach. Orders were issued verbally. No historian will find a notation signed by prime minister Nawaz Sharif authorising the then director general, civil aviation, in 1999 to divert the PIA aircraft craft carrying COAS Gen Musharraf to India. Not even on a Post-it.
The civil service was once regarded as a breed of uber-patriots, those who never lost sight of the national interest even when elected or military governments did. Gradually, that focus has developed cataracts. The Service has been all too willing to be led — half-blind — towards any decision that needed to be made. How else can one explain the obedience of bureaucrats (who should have known better) to the ill-conceived and now incomplete Orange Line project that has disfigured Lahore’s visage forever?
One would need to search graveyards to find examples of bold bureaucrats like Qamar-ul-Islam. In 1969, as deputy chairman Planning Commission, he was ‘ordered’ by Air Marshal Nur Khan (then deputy chief martial law administrator) to prepare a ‘National Plan’ for the new government. “Do you want a short-term one or a long-term one?” Qamar-ul-Islam replied.
Is it to be government by diktat?
“What’s the difference?” asked Nur Khan. The bureaucrat responded: “It depends on how long you intend to stay in power.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan has four more years in power, at least. So far he has not given any indication of the sort of Pakistan he would like to see in place by 2023. Is it still to be a federation? Or will its four major provinces like points on a compass, inimical to each other, face in four different directions?
Is it to be a government accountable to parliament? The condescending attitude of the ruling PTI and the immature misbehaviour of the opposition have converted the National Assembly into a mud-wrestling pit from which no-one emerges clean.
Is it to be government by diktat? Many believe that is Imran Khan’s preferred style. Yet, he allows such latitude to his subordinates. Take the IMF negotiations. Former minister Asad Umar would open his mouth to put his other foot in, until even his boss lost patience or was told by the IMF to replace him.
Now, unexpectedly, Makhdum Khusro Bakhtiyar (planning and development minister) and Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh (adviser to the prime minister on finance) both made announcements that the Asian Development Bank was providing the government with $3.4 billion as ‘budgetary support’. Such disclosures are normally made with mutual consent and only after the negotiations have reached a pre-board level of finality. The Asian Development Bank was not amused. Its Islamabad office over a weekend issued a stinging disclaimer. Is there no end to the number of rebukes we are to endure as a nation?
Apparently not. Indian Prime Minister Modi dismissed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s peace overtures as ‘paper kisses’ and effectively ignored him at the SCO summit at Bishkek recently. There, Mr Khan pulled out a speech replete with clichés. He invited the SCO members to invest in Pakistan. Someone at the Foreign Office should have advised him that, of its members, China already has invested more than it should, India never will, Russia has no intention to, and the ‘-stans’ have not forgotten the fate of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
It is such gaffes — whether in Riyadh or in Bishkek — that are diminishing our status as a power with the common sense to match our resources. Merely being a nuclear power is no protection against such acts of national hara-kiri.
The public had hoped that the 2019-20 budget would be a blueprint of the PTI government’s economic plans — however short-term. Instead, this budget will be equitable only in that it will hurt everyone and benefit no one.
The Pakistani public has no option but to endure. The PTI government has no option but to govern with more palpable maturity.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2019